new schools

Neighbors at odds heading into Near South High School hearing

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Elisabeth Greer, a parent and leader at the National Teachers Academy, speaking at a press conference in June about parents' lawsuit to stop CPS from displacing NTA with a new high school.

On Tuesday, Near South Side residents divided over the opening of a high school on the site of a popular elementary school have a chance to let district officials know how they feel about new attendance boundaries.

The 1,200 student Near South High School would open for the 2019-20 school year by the corner of State Street and Cermak Road, displacing National Teachers Academy, a top-ranked, mostly African-American elementary school whose supporters recently sued to halt Chicago Public Schools’ plans. The lawsuit alleges that the decision to close NTA violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

Members of the Gap community, a northeastern stretch of Bronzeville, had been left out of the proposed high school plan. But on Friday, CPS released an updated boundary map that included the attendance area for Pershing Elementary School, a neighborhood school serving Gap families.

“We’re pleased that they’ve listened to our outcry that we wanted to be included,” said Leonard McGee, president of the GAP Community Organization, which supports the new high school. “We’re still pushing until the board vote is done; anything can happen, we’re not resting on our laurels thinking it’s a done deal.”

He said his organization was “petitioning for children who aren’t even born, for kids who don’t even live in the area yet.”

“We’re looking at this high school as an opportunity for kids who aren’t even born yet to have access to a quality education, and that’s all it’s about,” he said, adding that the school would provide a high-quality option in a racially integrated setting.

At a public hearing last month, residents griped that the school would only serve 1,200 students, saying the need was greater and expressing fears of overcrowding. In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS said it determined that the boundary changes could be done without risking overcrowding. CPS spokesman Michael Passman said families “in the Near South Community,” have wanted a high-quality high school for years, and that the district is focused on opening the new high school to as many families as possible.

“We are pleased to be able to provide more Near South families with guaranteed access to a high-quality continuum of schools from pre-K through high school, and we look forward to continuing to work with the community to ensure the new school meets the needs of all local families,” Passman said.

But the boundary change doesn’t satisfy National Teachers Academy parents who are suing the district to stop the school’s closure, said Elisabeth Greer, chair of the academy’s Local School Council and the parent of two students at the school.

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Proposed boundaries for Near South High School. Families living in boundaries for Armor and Holden Elementary schools will receive preference for available seats, according to CPS.

Greer called the new boundaries “CPS’ sad attempt to try to garner more support for this plan” among black parents on the Near South Side.

“This is a decision by CPS to listen to some voices in the community but not others,” Greer said, claiming that the “thousands” who support keeping National Teachers Academy open dwarf neighborhood proponents of the new high school. “This is what CPS does, pit communities against each other. It’s been primarily African-Americans who have stood up against this plan, and this is an attempt to split the black community and get some African-Americans to [support CPS].”

McGee disagreed, characterizing Greer’s statement as “trying to divide the community itself.”

“I’m not getting into why CPS did what they did,” he said. “I’m only advocating for what’s a good educational opportunity for people in the neighborhood.”

But, Greer wants to be clear: “We are not at war with each other in the community.”

“We don’t plan to go in tomorrow night and be angry with the Gap community, we’re going to be there to talk to our neighbors,” she said. “We shouldn’t be fighting over scraps, we should be demanding that our community deserves something bigger and better like a new high school from the ground up.”

While Leonard also said he’d be at the meeting to hear from other concerned community members, he takes issue with Greer’s framing, particularly the word “scraps.”

“Let me have my scraps, and let me decide the value of them,” he said. “In fact, to say that is an insult to me and my community.”

Last month at a public hearing, National Teachers Academy supporters spoke against the project, while residents of Chinatown spoke in favor, arguing that they’ve pushed the district for years for an open-enrollment high school in the area and expressing concerns about the quality and safety of current neighborhood schools.

But at the Chicago Board of Education meeting on July 23, at least one Chinatown community leader blasted CPS.Debbie Liu of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community mentioned Chinatown’s long history of advocating for a high school, but said CPS has gone about meeting those demands the wrong way.

“A 1,200-student capacity is only a stopgap measure compared to projected growth in Chinatown and nearby communities,” she said. “The turmoil we have in the Near South could have been prevented with a more transparent, long-term, equitable planning process.”

Some of the areas zoned for the new high school currently feed Phillips High School, which is under-enrolled, according to CPS.

Community residents will have a chance to chime in about the updated boundary on Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan Ave.

 

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”